Sunday, November 02, 2014

A gay Chinese guy who came out to his family

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a Chinese guy who had seen my post last March about a gay Chinese student with a homophobic family. He wanted to share his story with me, because he thought that his experiences would be relevant to that gay Chinese student. After I'd read the email, I thought that a lot of gay Asian guys might be interested in his story, so I asked him whether I could post his email here on my blog. After some thought he agreed, so here is his story:

I'm ethnically Chinese, though I've lived in England for most of my life. On the whole, my parents are 'progressive' - at least by Singaporean-Chinese standards (shock horror - they're letting me study a literature degree at university and, rather surprisingly, are fully on board!) - but they nevertheless espouse socially conservative values; my dad more so than my mum.

For instance, my dad was rather taken aback by the fact that my sister dated and then later married an Englishman. He had always hoped, if not expected, that we would all find Chinese spouses; at the very least, spouses of Oriental heritage. So, for the first year or so that my sister was dating her future husband, my dad did his best to avoid talking to him, and, for the most part, acted like he wasn't there...even at intimate family dinners. My dad never gave voice to his disapproval; he let his actions do all the talking. His way of venting his displeasure, as you can gather, is very passive aggressive.

Late last year (/early this year), I was forced to come out, when my dad, quite of the blue, said: “You have lots of friends who are girls, but no girlfriend; have you just not found the right girl, or are you gay?'. This caught me off guard, and, at first, I was speechless. One of my brothers had texted earlier that day to say that my dad had asked him the same question about me, but I had never anticipated that he’d confront me about my sexuality face-to-face. As I said, his style of confrontation is passive aggressive and indirect; he’s never usually so blunt.

At this point, I decided that there was no use lying: I’d known I was gay from a relatively young age, but, at the time, I had done everything I could to suppress any gay thoughts; late in secondary school, I finally came to accept my sexuality and I went through the tough process of coming out to my close friends, siblings, and even one or two close relatives; and, most importantly, from the first day of uni, I'd been out to everyone – even people I didn't like and people I barely knew.

Rather coincidentally, I had planned to tell my parents at some point during the Christmas holidays, but I had never quite found the right moment. I guess, in a rather twisted way, my dad saved me the trouble. I had played out my ‘coming out’ sequence many times in my head, and I had imagined that my parents’ reaction would be far from supportive. On that account I was right: during our brief conversation, my dad never met my gaze, but instead continued to look at his phone; for the first few seconds, he didn't speak, but when he did he simply told me that being gay was a choice I had made – in the past, homosexuality was less prevalent, and in China, it was a rare phenomenon. He suggested, rather tactlessly, that I could always choose to marry a woman instead. His worry, he claimed, was that I would grow old without children to look after me – explicitly ignoring the fact that gay couples can adopt children, or even have biological children of their own. It was patently clear that he was predominantly occupied with his own concerns, not mine.

What I hadn't anticipated was how brief the conversation was and how disinterested my dad appeared to be in what I had to say: there was no shouting, no threats of disownment. In some ways, his actual response was more disconcerting. I had always imagined that my coming out would spark some almighty debate about the religious (my mother’s Christian), ethical and social implications that a gay lifestyle would entail, and I felt I was adequately prepared to meet his objections head on: if my dad said it was unnatural, I could point to data that suggested the contrary; what’s more, I could point to the logical flaws and inconsistencies in any argument he would employ. Yet, my dad’s reticence and unwillingness to engage in what I had to say left me dumbfounded; at least if he ranted at me, I could rant back. I felt there was nothing I could do.

Over the course of the next day or so, the subject was never revived. We didn't see much of each other because family obligations kept him out of the house. In the meantime, he told my mum; she never confronted me about the subject, perhaps because she had to catch a flight the next day, and didn't want to leave things on a sour note. But, I nevertheless raised the subject with her. The circumstances were far from ideal – we were hurrying to catch a taxi to a restaurant, after several pre-prandial cocktails – and, though it was short, what she said meant a lot to me: she said that she was disappointed, but that it was her that had to change her values, not me; most importantly, she said that she loved, gay or not. The next day she left for Singapore, and so we never thrashed things out properly.

After my mum left, my dad sat me down again, and told me that I had 'really upset' my mum. I was already upset from our last conversation – I had cried and vented to a couple of friends on the phone – and his attempt to turn things on me added insult to injury. I said that if anyone seemed to be hurting, it was him. He then decided to lay into me, saying that being gay was just a phase; if anything, he suggested I might be saying that I was gay as a means of spiting him and mum.

Like our last conversation, this one was short and to-the-point; but rather than being upset, I was just angry. Before he had been tactless, now he was just being spiteful. I avoided him for the next day, till he caught his flight home to Singapore. No goodbyes, not a word.

Now, all this might paint an intensely depressing picture – and I won’t deny that I was a bit of a wreck for the following week – but I decided to take matters into my own hands; if my dad wouldn't listen to what I had to say, I would try and force him to. Instead of calling, I sent a letter. I felt this would allow both him and my mother to digest what I had to say in their own time; the next time I would see them was in Easter, during my university holidays.

The letter was long, like this post, but in it I laid out all that I had to say: I tried to answer all the objections my dad raised in our two conversations; I tried to describe the obstacles I've had to face – self-acceptance, and my fears about the future as a gay man (finding a partner, starting a family etc); and I tried to point out why my dad’s response was unfair and insensitive, unlike my mother’s.

After re-reading that letter, I think I’ve isolated four important points I made:
  • First, acceptance is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks; it takes time and, though it’s difficult, you should be prepared to wait for that process to happen organically. What is more, it’s a two-way process: they have to reach out to you – it’s their duty as parents – but equally you must do your best to reach out to them.
  • Second, to a certain extent, people are products of their own backgrounds and cultures. My parents grew up in Singapore (my mum) and Malaysia (my dad), societies which still cling on to quite reactionary values. I will never condone my dad’s reaction to my coming out – I think he behaved immaturely and was very hurtful – but, the least I could do was try to understand why he holds (or held – he has changed!) those values. Many people in Asia are fed propaganda that tells them that homosexuality is wrong; some may even have been told that it’s very much a ‘thing of the West’ (that’s what’s being disseminated in Uganda!). To us that may seem like complete rubbish, but, if you’ve been raised on those sorts of values, you can see why Asian parents might hold those values.
  • Third, and I’m sure this point is made in every coming out story, being gay shouldn't change how a parent perceives his/her child. It’s no use denying that being gay makes a difference on someone’s life (in practical terms, like the partner you have, how you start a family etc.), but what it shouldn't affect is the parent-child relationship. Unconditional love is certainly a difficult ideal to achieve, but it’s something we should all aim for. For my dad, family is the most important thing; he says family is integral to Chinese social values. He always says that no matter what happens, family is still family. So, in this letter, I discussed unconditional love, and said that, because I’m gay, he should re-examine his values and attitudes towards homosexuality in this light.
  • Lastly, empathy is really important. If you can get your parents to empathise with you, that’s half the battle done. Rational arguments can only go so far. With my parents, I tried to draw parallels between their situation and mine. My mum was from a wealthy Singaporean family; my dad from a relatively poor Malaysian family, headed by a single mother. If my maternal grandfather had had his way, my mum would be a society woman, married to some rich and well-connected heir. But, my grandfather allowed them to get married; he realised that his expectations were not as important as his daughter’s happiness. So, I asked my dad how he would have felt if my grandfather had forbidden their marriage, or at the least not approved. He never chose to be born in the family he was born in; I never chose to be gay.
Now, the day after I sent this letter, I received a lovely reply from my mum, saying that she’d read the letter, stayed up all night and cried; she loved me no matter what. I later heard from my auntie (who I’m really close to, who knows I’m gay, and who I also sent the letter to) that she cried because she realised what I had to go through on my own, without being able to talk to either her or my dad.

My dad never replied to my email directly, and since I've seen him he hasn't mentioned the subject again, but I know for a fact that he’s a lot more accepting. Sure, it took him a few months, but when I next saw him over the Easter, it was like everything was back to normal. Now, several more months down the line, things are great, if not even better. My mum said that my dad would never be the one to admit that he was wrong – he’s too proud, and it’s not in his nature to have deep conversations about feelings – but, to use a cliché, his actions speak louder than words: for instance, he ensured that I had a great 21st, allowing me to host an extravagant party. It may sound materialistic or superficial, but it’s much more than that because I know he must have changed on some level to be some accommodating, especially when I can be quite demanding!

To tackle the other reader's situation more directly, I’m not suggesting that he come out to his parents soon; only he can be the judge of when and how. If his parents are as stubborn and set-in-their-ways as he suggests, perhaps he should wait till after he finishes university; it would be a disaster to have to forfeit university because your parents pulled the funding.

Whilst his parents are wrong for holding the views they do, and whilst they are being unfair in the way they try to deal with the topic of homosexuality, they should not be held up to impossible standards. His parents are products of their own cultures and upbringings, and, whilst they can change, it takes time. What’s more, acceptance is a two-way process. Get to know your parents, whether that’s simply by helping out round the house, or just trying to talk about something they’re interested in. Once you make an effort to get to know them in a more personal way, they will more willing to get to know you; and hopefully, as and when you come out, they’ll try harder to be accepting.

It’s difficult when you know your parents don’t accept a part of who you are (even if you haven’t come out!). For much of my teenage years, I resented my parents because I knew their attitudes towards homosexuality; but as I matured I realised that, for all their flaws, my parents do love me and do so much for me, whether it’s simple chores like ironing, or being there to help me when I’m in trouble. When you appreciate that, it may make you more willing to give your parents time to change. Also, trying not to resent them will lift a burden off your shoulders. Resenting someone is such a draining process!

Also, if possible, try and sit your sister down: be blunt – ask her if being gay is a problem. If she says yes, ask her why. Try to reason with her, but also make an emotional appeal. Say that you’re still the same person, that you still love her, and you hope that she still loves you. Tell her that you are trying to be more understanding with your parents, but that it’s hard. If you can get her on board, and you become closer to her, it’ll make coming out to your parents when you’re ready a lot easier. The way your sister has behaved towards you is wrong, but try and be the more mature one, and reach out to her.


RB said...

Thanks for sharing this. I really appreciated learning about this guy's coming out experience with his family. His parents' reaction is not so bad. I'm not surprised about his father....I think these things are more difficult for the father.

Give this some time. In a year the parents will have had time to better absorb this, and I think they will be more accepting.

Pink Wedding Days said...

As much as we hate to admit it, we are all a product of the societies we are brought up in. We all need to 'break our programming' to some extent, to see the world through a perspective that's broader than the one we've grown up with.

I have nothing but admiration for the young man in this post. What a collected and mature response to such a difficult and upsetting situation. I think partly because of that, given time, his father will become more accepting.

Thanks for sharing :)

Anonymous said...

What a valuable and helpful message. On behalf of everyone it helps, thank you so much (both the author and GB) for writing and sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I am from singapore too and I think the way his parents treat him is not entirely due to the conservative Asian culture. Personalities also play a part- some parents just want their kids to conform to their expectations and others less so.

We are all responsible for our own happiness and really none of anyone's business who we are seeing.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post - it almost brought a tear to my eye!